Revisiting Khesum: pioneer of Xizang's democratic reform

(Xinhua) 09:01, March 30, 2024

* In March 1959, democratic reform swept through Xizang, abolishing feudal serfdom and ushering in a new era of freedom.

* Xizang has progressed from poverty to prosperity and from autocracy to democracy.

* Khesum, pioneer of Xizang's democratic reform, has taken on a completely different look.

LHASA, March 29 (Xinhua) -- While Sonam Dondrup's great-grandson, a fourth-grader in southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, indulges in basketball and cartoons, and dreams of becoming a policeman, his own childhood was starkly different.

It was marked by relentless labor on farmlands, living on meager barley flour soup, and being subjected to frequent whippings and beatings. Dreams seemed impossible amidst the harsh reality of serfdom.

He was one of 302 serfs and slaves at Khesum Manor under Surkhang Wangchen Geleg, a senior official with Xizang's local government at the time.

Sonam Dondrup's father was a serf, and it seemed inevitable that his descendants would share the same fate. However, in March 1959, democratic reform swept through Xizang, abolishing feudal serfdom and ushering in a new era of freedom.

Located some 160 km from Lhasa, the regional capital, Khesum is today home to 880 residents and is easily accessible by car or train. It has taken on a completely different look, featuring Tibetan-style villas, a library, a clinic, grocery stores and a public square.

Ahead of the Serfs' Emancipation Day this year, which fell on Thursday, the pioneering community in Xizang's democratic reform has once again captured attention.

Sonam Dondrup is pictured at his home in Khesum, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, March 1, 2024. (Xinhua/Purbu Tsering)


Around the time when Sonam Dondrup was born, the blight of slavery had largely been eradicated from the face of the Earth, yet Xizang was still firmly in its clutches.

Between the ages of 8 and 16, he endured the harsh realities of Khesum Manor. His days were consumed by toiling in the fields or aiding the manor steward on grueling treks. Nights offered little comfort, as his family of nine squeezed into a drafty adobe house. Illness brought further hardship with no medical care available.

"Roll calls were a daily occurrence. Sleeves had to be rolled up and hats removed. Failure to do so meant a beating," the 82-year-old said.

Annually, each laborer had to do over 210 days of unpaid work for the three estate-holders: Surkhang Wangchen Geleg, the local government, and a monastery.

Additionally, each laborer had to contribute over 800 kilograms of grain and 100 liang (about 5 kg) of Tibetan silver per year, all while enduring numerous taxes and corvees, including those levied on every birth and death.

Yet the most horrific aspect of serfdom was the brutality and torture. The laws of old Xizang allowed the estate-holders to deny all human rights to their serfs, who could be bought and sold, thrown in jail, or even killed at will.

Once, when Sonam Dondrup arrived late in the fields, "the steward of the manor whipped me mercilessly until I lost consciousness," he recalled. But he considered himself fortunate compared to others.

In Lhasa's memorial hall, commemorating serf emancipation, black and white photographs vividly depict the brutality of that era. Documentation of Chungkyi blinded, Tseringta crippled, Palbon noseless and an unnamed serf tongueless serves as a haunting reminder of the cruelty.

Sonam Dondrup talks about the development of Khesum in southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, March 1, 2024. (Xinhua/Purbu Tsering)


On June 6, 1959, serfs in Khesum exercised their voting rights for the first time, electing the preparatory committee of the first association of peasants in Xizang. In December of the same year, Xizang's first rural Party branch was established there.

"Life has undergone earth-shaking changes, which is a world away from the past," said Sonam Dondrup, whose family was given 20 mu (about 1.3 hectares) of land, a donkey and a yak following the democratic reform.

He attended night school, eventually becoming a cadre in Khesum. Two of his children graduated from college and work in telecommunications, while the third runs a car rental business.

Xizang is the first provincial-level region in China to provide 15 years of publicly funded education from kindergarten to senior high school, standing in stark contrast to the past when access to education was limited to the nobility.

"If it weren't for the democratic reform, I would have been destined to become a serf within a local monastery," said Pasang, 75.

Khesum's first elementary school welcomed over 50 children, including Pasang, who would later help manage the community's rice noodle processing plant.

A grandson of former serfs, 55-year-old Sonam Tsering, has embraced Khesum's transition to mechanized agriculture in the 1990s.

"The harvest period has been reduced from 20-plus days to just 12 days," said Sonam Tsering, who also manages a teahouse and a construction team, earning over 170,000 yuan (about 23,523 U.S. dollars) annually.

Sonam Dondrup waters flowers at his home in Khesum, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, March 1, 2024. (Xinhua/Purbu Tsering)


In the past 65 years, Xizang has progressed from poverty to prosperity and from autocracy to democracy. The regional GDP soared to nearly 239.3 billion yuan in 2023, a significant leap from the meager 174 million yuan in 1959. The average life expectancy rose from 35.5 years before 1959 to 72.19 years in 2021.

Today, Khesum epitomizes a typical rural community in Xizang, where sunlight bathes the elderly on benches, women enjoy buttered tea in cozy teahouses, and children eagerly plead for candies from local shops.

Thanks to initiatives like land transfers, vegetable cultivation in greenhouses and rural cooperatives, Khesum's per capita GDP surged to 31,000 yuan in 2023, according to the community's Party chief Kangtsu.

Sonam Dondrup now lives in a two-story villa with over 20 rooms. It is equipped with modern amenities like a television, a microwave and a humidifier. He frequently travels and has visited bustling cities such as Beijing and Chengdu.

The old society seemed a thousand years in the past, with only 15 survivors of serfdom remaining in Khesum. Five or six of them are 80 years or older.

"I am concerned that the history of serfdom may fade from the memory of future generations," Sonam Dondrup said.

However, efforts to preserve this history persist, with relics, facts and figures vividly displayed in various museums. In 2009, the regional legislature announced March 28 as a day to commemorate the emancipation of about 1 million serfs.

"As long as I have a voice and ears willing to listen, I will continue to impart knowledge and remind the younger generation that our present happiness did not come easy," he said.

(Reporting by Lin Jianyang, Cheng Lu, Li Hua, Liu Zhoupeng and Purbu Tsering; video reporters: Sonam Dekyi, Loden and Purbu Tsering; video editors: Zhang Yucheng, Zhang Yuhong and Zhou Saang.)

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Hongyu)


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